Social Signals: From Awkward Encounters to Best Friends

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD
7 min readAug 25, 2018
Photo by Duy Pham on Unsplash

Some people just have it. None of us really know what ‘it’ is, but we tend to call it social charisma. As I write this, I am sitting at a desk in the British Library in London, UK, opposite a young male French student who is studying here, and two other British female students next to him (I don’t know any these people). The male was a stranger to the female pair only moments ago. But now they are fully engaged in a verbal dialogue full of smiles and honest enjoyment. The interaction brings to mind the kind of dance that some colorful species of male bird might do to attract a mate. And this guy is the most colorful in the entire library. It really doesn’t seem to be the stuff that he says, but the way that he says it. Anyone who listens is bound to be enthralled, purely through the non-verbal communicative signals he is giving off. I am certainly enthralled. And I am certainly more than a little odd because I have been glancing and eavesdropping on this situation for far too long by any normal standard.

New social situations are a pretty tense environment for many of us. We want to be liked and the feeling of being judged is anxiety-inducing. For some people with neuropsychiatric disorders, the experience is even more salient. Tourette syndrome is a disorder characterized by unwanted, rapid, repeated, and sudden movements of the body. These movements are called tics and they can include eye blinks, facial movements, and vocalizations. During a research project I was running in Germany in 2014, I chatted with a Tourette Syndrome patient about their social experiences. He was the only patient I had met who suffered from severe vocal tics, and it was interesting to talk to him about how that affected his life. He would tell me nightmarish stories about his experiences on local buses for example, where he would involuntarily shout Nazi slogans, and get beaten up in response, by people who thought he was some kind of racist demagogue (remember this is in Germany, and in case you didn’t know, German society is a little sensitive when it comes to speech related to Nazism). He went on to say his tics were always at their worst when it was least appropriate for him to tic, which sounds like the kind of torture the most evil person in the universe would inflict upon their victims. The content of vocal tics and their frequency will depend…

Erman Misirlisoy, PhD

Research Leader (Ex-Instagram / Chief Scientist at multiple startups). Author of the User Insight Newsletter: